Cuonzo Martin’s Rocky Top Road To Sweet 16

Three black head coaches reached the Sweet 16 this season. Two barely even made the tournament and were still standing over X-marked trap doors after they vaulted over the Selection Committee hurdle.

Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins job status was in the most peril after six seasons in Palo Alto, but at least he had the Duke pedigree to fall back on. His Blue Devils playing career ingratiated him to millions of college hoops fans before Duke evolved into the evil, laser-equipped Death Star currently orbiting college hoops’ atmosphere. His Duke teammate Tommy Amaker parlayed rocky stints at Michigan and Seton Hall into a premium gig at Harvard.

Cuonzo Martin is more enigmatic than KFC’s secret 11 herbs and spices recipe (the popular theory is Soylent Green, which is an even deeper mystery).

It’s almost impossible to discuss Cuonzo Martin outside of a basketball pretense. There’s just not much pizzazz to Martin or discernible passion. Martin hides his emotions better than Jimmy Hoffa.

His reticence to emote isn’t a pockmark on his character, but it does present a powerful dichotomy from the vivacious demeanor of his exiled predecessor. Martin may be the most uninteresting coach in the world.

Bruce Pearl was Robin Williams’ Cadillac Man in the form of an affable coach. He bounced and cheered courtside and shirtless in orange body paint for a Lady Vols home game. His show of school spirit prompted Pat Summit to trot out in a throwback cheerleader’s uniform to lead a Rocky Top chorus, producing an indelible moment in pregame Vols history before a home game in 2007.

After the pseudo-death of their salesman, Pearl was immediately scooped up as an analyst by ESPN. The transition to the stern and matter-of-fact Martin was a shock to Knoxille’s system. Nearly 25 years ago, Pearl and Martin’s paths intersected for the first time, impacting the course of Martin’s life.

As an East St. Louis senior basketball star in 1990, Martin was intent on accepting a scholarship from the University of Illinois. However, the environment around Illinois was toxic at a time when the program appeared like it was going to get hit with more sanctions than Havana after then-Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl Narc’ed to the NCAA about Illinois’ shady negotiating over ‘$80,000 and a Blazer’ with Deon Thomas, which were supplemented with recorded phone conversations with Thomas.

Pearl’s efforts did more collateral damage to his own career than Illinois’ program, which was slapped with a one-year postseason ban after a few minor infractions were uncovered. Amidst the carnage of Pearl’s snitching, Martin wound up avoiding the pileup that ensnared Iowa, Pearl, the NCAA and Illinois for a safe haven at Purdue.

Martin graduated from Purdue as an All-Big Ten player, in addition to cupping the highest three-point shooting percentage in school history. After a brief NBA career, Martin spent eight years moving up Purdue’s bench before getting tabbed by Missouri State, about three hours west of St. Louis.

In three seasons at the helm of Missouri State, Martin hoisted the Bears from an 11-win team to 24 wins and CIT championship and hit the crescendo with 26 wins and the Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship.

When Tennessee strolled through Missouri State with their offer in 2011 after Pearl was caught on the other side of the NCAA law, Martin took the challenge despite the prospect of a possible postseason ban on the horizon. Martin is right on schedule in his third season at the controls in Knoxville.

"It's a surreal feeling, because I said when Coach Martin (got here) and these guys started playing and (I) came here, Tennessee basketball was dead," Jarnell Stokes told the USA Today. "And now, to be back in the Sweet 16, it's a great feeling."

Externally, Martin is frozen in permanent mean mug mode and his team mirrors their head coach’s attitude. Just listen to how excited he was to be participating in the NCAA Tournament instead of, yanno getting tossed on his keister, opening the window for the Vols to recycle Pearl just before his show-cause penalty expires. A petition to Bring Back Bruce had accumulated over 36,000 signatures.

The Vols 129th ranked scoring offense doesn't inspire as much collective awe as Michigan's slash, shoot and oop wing-oriented offensive blitz, but they offer a matchup nightmare for Michigan. The 332nd slowest offensive tempo pace per 40 minutes out of 345 teams eats up the clock, but their sluggish pace yields an offense that ranks 21st nationally in points per possession.

They Vols are fourth in rebounding percentage and create their advantage as a top four offensive rebounding crash unit anchored by Stokes, who is tied with Julius Randle as the distinguished double-double chief, and Jeronne Maymon.

Maymon and Stokes will be relied upon heavily against the Wolverines’ puny interior defense.

Defensively, the Volunteers allow fewer points per game than all but 15 other teams. Twelve of the 15 teams above reached the NCAA Tournament. Michigan will be the favorite, but there are causes for concern. Michigan stretches out defenses with their perimeter firing squad which ranks seventh in three-point shooting percentage. SEC All-First Team defender Josh Richardson will be velcroed to Nik Stauskas, however, he’s not alone. Tennessee’s long, athletic wingmen including leading scorer Jordan McRae and Antonio Barton held Mercer, UMass, and Iowa to 15-of-49 shooting from behind the arc.

The source of Martin’s levelheadedness and perseverance germinated from his battle with cancer. At age 26, Martin was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and his professional basketball career was put on hold. After two years, Martin was declared cancer-free.

“I was always rough as a basketball player. I think where it helps me more than anything is to be even-keeled, to keep your guys’ composure at a high level, to understand we’re OK, we’ve been in this situation before – this is the best way to get out of it,” Martin said going into detail about how his victory over cancer affected his leadership style. “Just be more relaxed and let your guys lock in on the task at hand instead of the environment. I think it has really helped me as a coach just to understand that tomorrow is a new day.”

Martin’s survival instincts extend beyond his successful cancer battle. Pearl’s shadow left him behind the count, but missing the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons was one strike against Martin, the transfer of rash decision-making point guard Trae Golden’s transfer became strike two and last Wednesday’s play-in game against Iowa nearly signaled strike three for the Martin era in Tennessee.

Nobody expected Martin to be cracking a smile in a team selfie after reaching the Sweet 16 on Sunday.

The last time Martin was in a Regional Semifinal as a standout player, he and Glenn Robinson II were tag teaming to score all but 10 of Purdue’s points in a ’94 tourney win over Kansas. On Friday, he’ll return to thwart the Big Ten’s conference champion featuring Glenn Robinson III.

The Pearl era’s ignominious end is a memory most Tennessee fans have purged from their memory banks, but the Sweet 16 offers an opportunity for closure while simultaneously offering Martin's mythology a seed to sprout from. In particular, I’m talking about the  Wolverines’ 30 point NCAA Tournament second round waterboarding of Tennessee in an 8-9 matchup that served as the nadir of Pearl’s coaching career.

On Feb. 27, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings emerged as a fervent supporter of Martin when his fate appeared to be his bleakest. Martin returned the favor by trouncing Vandy 76-38 en route to a five-game winning streak that ended against Florida in the SEC Tournament.

Martin is no longer just holding on by his fingertips. He’s hovering over his vanquished critics in a position of power. It's been a rocky road to reach this point, but its smooth sailing for Martin now that he's left his mark at Tennessee.

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